Many scriptural texts can be read in isolation of their context and still provide some meaning.
However, some texts, like these verses from James, benefit greatly from reading what precedes it (if not orally in the congregation then at least in the pastor's sermon preparation). James is looking forward, to the future, with hope. But what is this hope? And what does this hope mean for the community of faith on the Third Sunday of Advent?
The past two Sundays, the community has heard the readings from the final chapters of Romans where Paul is developing what it means to live like a Christian, led and molded by the Holy Spirit. Is James now proposing that we simply "hope" for some future coming, eyes directed heavenward, as if we did not have to be concerned about this life? Definitely not! The key passage that eliminates a pie-in-the-sky hope (waiting for Jesus to return on the clouds of heaven and make everything "right") is verse 9, "Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged." Our hope may actually be judged! What type of hope is James writing about, what type of hope will pass the judgment?
If we look at the preceding verses (especially chapter 4:11 up to our pericope reading), we discover some surprising statements. (Note: these verses do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary though they are read in the Roman lectionary and the older Episcopal lectionary). The hope that James describes is not looking upwards to some heavenly salvation nor is it looking inwards to some spiritual illumination but it is looking the other, our neighbor, directly in the face.
And this looking is done in a non-critical manner (we are not judges of the law, 4:11 -- can this person be useful to me? Does he/she fit my definition of a human being, etc.). It is not done in self-interest: engaging activities simply for the sake of making money (4:13-15). These verses are like echoes of the Sermon on the Mount. We come to the realization that James is probably heavily influenced by both Jesus' Sermon and by Paul's interpretation. Why worry about tomorrow? (Matthew 6:34). The hope that is proposed is a hope that is grounded in the Lord and on what the Lord desires. The focus of this hope is not ourselves (whether we are gazing outwards or inwards) but the Lord and how the Lord wants us to live in this life.
This perspective is doubly underlined in the verses of chapter 5 that introduce our pericope. The objects of worldly hope are squarely condemned. But here, it is not a matter of judging from personal prerogative or prejudice. It is a matter of justice for those less fortunate, for the workers, the ones without privilege. Has the neighbor been "loved" as much as self?
Now, perhaps, we can understand better the "be patient... until the coming of the Lord." This patience is not a personal virtue for by nature we all want things to happen right now, for us, in the best possible way. Perhaps we can have patience when we know that we are working towards a personal goal. Yet the patience that James is proposing is the patience given by the Holy Spirit. It is patience that is deeply rooted in faith. It is working, laboring towards a goal when one is not always sure what the goal is, what it will look like, or even what it will mean for "me." Whether you, the reader, are in the northern or southern hemisphere, whether the sun is blazing on your land in December or the land is resting in a winter's sleep, we all know the incertitude of nature: the seed, the entire crop, is planted but will the rain come? Will the weather be right?
The example James uses is one familiar to each of us. Today's Gospel though gives another, more pertinent example. John the Baptist is imprisoned. He does not know what is happening. He does not know his end. He preached repentance and like many prophets he was rejected. He now waits and in his waiting he wonders: is this Jesus the one? John the Baptist exemplifies this patience lived in faith, the patience of "not knowing." It should also be noted that Jesus' response (about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed) clearly directs John's hope in an earthly direction! John need not look for fireworks in the sky. The signs all have to do with the well-being of the other, the wholeness of creation and justice.
"Strengthen your hearts...", James continues. This strengthening of the heart comes as the community lives and witnesses together. The patience in suffering is lived together as members of the community of faith watch over and care for one another. No words of slander, no grumbling, no back-stabbing, but always speaking and doing the good for the neighbor. In fact, it would seem that a characteristic of this patience is precisely a deep compassion and love towards the other as if James is writing, "slow down, seek first the kingdom of God, be attentive to one another, let all things happen in and for God, then all else will be given, God will grant all in God's time."
What is clear, of course, is the centrality of the Word of God. None of what James proposes here is possible through human strength, will or power. The patience and the hope are both grounded in faith, that gift of the Holy Spirit. Both have been given to the community, both however need to be nurtured, encouraged, formed. Isn't this what James is attempting throughout his letter?